“Let’s imagine that there’s a nice young alien couple who saved money to buy a UFO spacecraft,” charismatic artist Jesse Carson Smigel says. “They were sold a lemon. They painted it hot orange and are flying around the shooting range when a skeet shooter hits it and it crash-lands.” The assumption, Smigel says, is that the saucer was brought down by the shotgun fire. In reality (which is fiction here), the lemon of a spacecraft was on a “controlled crash descent.”
It’s possible that only the mind of the Las Vegas artist could weave this inventive and unexpected narrative, which weds the Clark County Shooting Complex to Area 51 in a somewhat literary public sculpture for the county. The logic behind the piece fits, though, when considering its similarity to the Complex’s disc targets that inspired his “I Told You Not to Paint It Hot Orange” installation.
The sculpture is Smigel’s response to Clark County Public Art Program’s call for artists in its $175,000 Centered project, designed to energize bland or non-landscaped medians throughout the Valley. Ten artists were commissioned to create unique works, with installations starting in April 2016 following a July 2015 proposal deadline. Smigel’s site-specific piece (installed near the shooting range) just happens to reflect the type of nimble merriment the artist—who has created giant lawn ornaments, sci-fi Borg cats and an interactive game show–inspired exhibit—is known for. Standing 4 feet tall (and scaled to the near dimensions of a clay pigeon target), the entrenched saucer will eventually be accompanied by two aliens placed beside it, one slumped in disbelief and grasping its head, the other with arms bent in the air.
While other pieces don’t come equipped with a storyline, Centered’s artworks respond to their respective environments in diverse ways while catering to the idea of community, place, neighborhoods and broad appeal. For the intersection of Lone Mountain Road and Durango Drive, Zak Ostrowski, Drew Gregory and Clemente Cicoria created “Arc Spine,” a skeletal structure of nontouching steel parts placed on a field of red pumice rock, which takes the sculptural shape of sand dunes and mountains. The work pays homage to the metal skeletons of vintage signs at Downtown’s Neon Museum.
Centered originated after residents contacted the county requesting median beautification similar to the metal sculptures of cacti and Joshua trees the City of Las Vegas had installed, says Michael Ogilvie, the county’s public art specialist. “We wanted to do something different,” he says, that would circulate money back into the community by employing locally based artists creating unique works in the project funded by the county’s Percent for the Arts program.
Ogilvie explains that in addition to creating a visual identity and beautifying and enhancing the community, the installation is more cost-effective, efficient and desert-tolerant than installing trees and shrubs. “The resource preservation is an incredibly important part of this project,” he says.
But the median projects, as with the county’s utility box Zap! project, have been sitting ducks for vandals and pranksters, requiring repairs and reinstallation even if not in the same location. Most notable was the theft of artist Chris Bauder’s golden lion and the smashing of his pink alligators—all animals of a concrete jungle—in “Night Eyes,” near Decatur Boulevard and Flamingo Road. “Thumbs Up,” a minimalist-meets-modernist installation of neighborly pedestrians at Pecos Road and Las Vegas Boulevard by Robin Stark and Eric Pawloski, was hit by a car, requiring future reinstallation of the surviving pieces at the Walnut Community Center near the original site.
“I’m hoping that we’re just going through some growing pains,” Ogilvie says, lamenting the problems. “Public art is always in danger. It’s out there and it can be damaged.” He adds that somebody tried to steal KD Matheson’s “Anthropos” sculpture in the first two days of its installation.
Before “Anthropos” was hit and destroyed earlier this month—Ogilvie says the county is weighing its options regarding reinstallation—it stood on a median on Decatur Boulevard near Interstate 215. The more than 5-foot-tall (and somewhat discreet) ancient tribal–inspired work offered a message of the self in balance, centered amid the chaos of the universe, appearing as an archaeological find of sorts placed in 21st-century Las Vegas.
With vigilantes deciding what’s fit and unfit for the community through sledgehammer criticism and a lack of respect for public art, seven works remain intact, and another is awaiting installment.
Still untouched by vandals, Holly Rae Vaughn’s “Gem” is a 24-foot horizontal installation of color Plexiglas panels on Windmill Lane near Rainbow Boulevard. It ignites the stretch of road with the linear arrangement of 4-by-4-foot translucent surfaces. Designed to add a colorful punch to the desert beige, it offers nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s through the jewel-tone colors of the eras (and a subtle nod to the end of The Goonies). Partially overlapping and responding to sunlight, it becomes a continuum, referencing the “feedback loop” of the digital imaging that allows us to immediately relive the past.
Miguel Rodriguez’s vibrantly colored “Jaguar,” on McLeod Drive near Desert Inn Road, is a vibrant and toothy jaguar head patterned and striped with red, yellow, orange and green. Inspired by Huichol art (a folk art style that originated in Mexico), the work was designed to speak to the Mexican heritage of the community in the area, the artist says. Its bold color and form pop from the otherwise drab median.
Artist Chris O’Rourke’s “Native Dance,” near East Reno Avenue and Koval Lane, consists of aged-steel individual rings representing piercings on an arm that had been pointing toward the sky and suddenly dropped—a snapshot of gravity in motion made from 2-inch-thick rings connected to an I-beam structure. At certain angles, the piece might appear to look like a feather. And down the street from Rodriguez’s “Jaguar,” near East Flamingo Road, is Adolfo Gonzalez’s “Octosteam.” A wild steampunk sea creature with wheels, it offers its gorgeous sci-fi self to passersby, interrupting the sight line with the neo-Victorian fantasy genre.
On deck for Centered is Luis Varela-Rico’s “Norte y Suerte,” to be installed at Eastern and Serene Avenues pending roadwork completion. The large-scale, three-dimensional head created by stacked planes of steel, which will age into a patina of desert hues, is connected by square tubes. It is the artist’s answer to an accessible piece that would appeal to the community. Inspired by the giant stone heads created and left by the ancient Olmec culture of Mexico and Guatemala, “Norte y Suerte” is similar in style to a sculpture of a hand he made a few years ago. The work has Varela-Rico humorously noting: “I have this weird subconscious thing where I’m going to make a whole body, and pieces are going to be littered around town.” For now, it belongs to a body of work scattered within the miles and miles of roadways in the Valley—for the community, but also vulnerable to it.